Beowulf came from the pagan world and would, for the most part, remain in that pagan world. Yet, his gifts—of strength, spirit, and fortitude—were the gifts of the Christian God, whether the poem allowed this or not. Much like Greek philosophy preparing the way of Christ for the Jews, it could be that Beowulf prepares the way of Christ for the noble barbaric pagans of the Middle Ages.

Given its epic nature, the Beowulf poem also drew from other mythologies circulating in its own time: the Roman Aeneid; the Norse Volsunga; and the Germanic Niebelungleid. Even the pagans, after all, believed in evil and the eternal death of the damned. There was, in summary, a sort of fusion of many things.

It is plain that the whole business of fusion, at the upper or mythological end—where contact was closest, Scripture itself being more ‘mythological’ in its mode of expression—was intricate. But this at least we can say: the fusion (at any rate, that which we find in Beowulf) is certainly not that of a pagan who remembers a few items from early sermons. It is the product, as I have said elsewhere, of deep thought and emotion. It is indeed the product of learning, of a man or men who could read Scripture, who had with their eyes read the Latin words: Tubalcain qui fuit malleator et faber in cuncta opera aeris et ferri—and Gigantes autem erant super terram in diebus illis [Genesis iv.22 and vi.4]. (The very word gígant is derived from Latin and equated with eoten and ent.)[1]

Tolkien thought that the poet’s style of incorporation best reflected the homiletic style of the same period.[2]

The Beowulf poet also successfully employs the quasi-Christian, quasi-pagan medieval notions of the “wyrd,” the strange, unnatural, or supernatural event.[3] As always, the wyrd—such as the three witches who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth—effectively serve to ask questions about the nature of free will and fate. The wyrd offers the reader a possible explanation—without actually rendering a judgment—as to the necessary sequence of events. All of this, Tolkien argued, allowed for both the weaving and spinning of tales. Again, he is worth quoting at length.

Let us take one prime point: weaving. Though related activities, weaving and spinning are quite distinct operations (of wholly different imaginative suggestion). What is more: weaving needs a more or less elaborate machine (loom) and tools; it was not a specially female operation—it remained largely a masculine craft down to Bottom and beyond. The picture of three old sisters sitting at a loom (or three looms?) to determine the length of a man’s life cannot have been a primitive notion. On the other hand spinning (the production of threads) was far more ancient, and was specially associated with women (as still the ‘distaff side’ and ‘spinster’ remind us). [The Greek names of the Fates (Moirai, Latin Parcae) were Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho is ‘the Spinner’ who spins the thread of life;] Lachesis ‘allotting, lot’ is this thread’s determined length; but Atropos [the ‘unturnable’] simply represents the inexorability of the allotment, which no human will can alter. In any case the allegory deals primarily with length of human life, and is not a general ‘historical’ allegory at all. We do not know about ancient Italic ‘mythology’. But the Italic ‘weaving’ words do not appear ever in any such area of thought. The literary uses are derivative from Greek. Latin Parca was originally singular. According to Walde, with probability, it is the name of a divinity concerned with birth (parere)—the ancestress, so to say, of the fairy godmother at christenings![4]

Echoing Tertullian’s famous comment, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tolkien rhetorically asked “What has Ingeld to do with Christianity?”[5] Ingeld, it must be noted, is a character (though a minor one) in the Beowulf poem. The poem, it seems, much like Greek philosophy preparing the way of Christ for the Jews, prepares the way of Christ for the noble barbaric pagans of the Middle Ages, creating a sort of fusionism and “via media.”[6]

As the poet reminded the reader and listener, though, even the wyrd is governed by God. As such, Tolkien brought his students back to the very notion of the Christian will and God’s grace in the story of Beowulf. The hero came from the pagan world and would, for the most part, remain in that pagan world. Yet, his gifts—of strength, spirit, and fortitude—were the gifts of the Christian God, whether Beowulf allowed this or not. This spoke to a society that had recently adopted Christian beliefs and morality while still holding on to its recent noble traditions of class and honor.[7] As a representative of the older tradition, Beowulf is still proud and self-confident, not unnaturally in one so indomitable, but he is aware of God,” Tolkien assured his audience. “You will observe that though he is eager for glory, and the approbation of good men, self-aggrandisement is not his main motive. He may earn glory by his deeds, but they are all in fact done as a service to others.”[8]

If there was real historical figure who most closely represented the best of Beowulf, caught between ancient and medieval as well as between pagan and Christian, Tolkien stated, it was King Alfred the Great. “Nobody would have better understood or been better able to play Hrothgar’s part than Alfred—who won his mother’s praise for poemata saxonica—the lays of his northern heroic fathers—and yet felt himself almost alone in the Dark Age, attempting to save from the wreck of time some sparks surviving from the Golden Age, from Rome and the mighty Cáseras and builders of the fallen world.”[9]

Such men, Tolkien concluded, as Alfred, Beowulf, Wiglaf, and Hrothgar, lived in a fasci.

This is the third essay in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Beowulf” series.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 307.

[2] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 308.

[3] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 243ff.

[4] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 268-269.

[5] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 328.

[6] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 329.

[7] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 272.

[8] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 274.

[9] Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 350.

The featured image is an illustration of Beowulf (1915) by Helen Stratton, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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